Blog : Student apartments save, in more ways than one, with geothermal

By Ken | May 4, 2015 | in

By Ken Johnson

From the outside, the Rivers Edge Apartments, an off-campus student apartment building located on Main Street in downtown Durham, looks like other similar residences. However, the apartment building, on the north west side of the University of New Hampshire's campus is vastly different from other student apartments; Rivers Edge Apartments was the first campus building, and in Durham, to utilizes geothermal system technology for heating and cooling. It's an alternative energy source that provides the familiar comfort of traditional heating and cooling systems, according to Melissa Aho, president of Ultra Geothermal, Inc.

“Geothermal heating and cooling systems – also called geoexchange or ground-source heat pumps – provide all-season comfort by tapping the energy that is naturally stored in the earth,” Aho said. “This energy isn't just renewable: it's constant. Conventional furnaces burn fossil fuels, depleting precious resources and polluting the air. A geothermal system draws the earth's natural warmth into the home, through the use of a geothermal ground source heat pump.”

Jeff White, the original owner of Rivers Edge Apartments and general contractor for the apartment complex, decided he wanted the building to have a geothermal system, due to the green nature of geothermal and rising fuel costs.

“I really liked the idea of it being a green product itself,” White said. “I thought that would go over well with UNH and the college kids that were going to rent from me.”

He contracted Ultra Geothermal, in Barrington, New Hampshire, for the project. He had used Ultra Geothermal before in the past for forced hot air systems that they had installed in residential properties White had built.

Construction on Rivers Edge Apartments began in 2008 and Ultra Geothermal started the initial ducting installation for the geothermal system in January of 2009. Both the building's construction and the geothermal system were finished in July of 2009.

During the seven month installation of the geothermal system, Ultra Geothermal did the piping work, low voltage electrical system, and ducting, completing the project by finishing the grills and thermostats in the apartments in July.

Upon completion, the three story complex had 48 two bedroom units allowing for a maximum occupancy of 96 students.

“The first winter that we went through, in January when it was very cold I was over there all the time checking the system and seeing how it was running and we had no issues at all,” White said. “It was negative sometimes at night and the system was fine handling that cold temperature and dealing with the high demand.”

Geothermal heating and cooling systems drastically reduce the carbon footprint of a building as well as saving the owner of the building money in standard operating cost, which Rivers Edge Apartments is a prime example of.

“There was a huge savings [from the geothermal system] in monthly expense, “ White said.

White said that he was able to get a huge tax credit for installing the system and the building was approved as an energy star building, which added to the rebate.

“I am going to take a direct correlation between oil and electric pertaining to the dorm building,” Aho said. “My assumption is that the geothermal usage in the building is about 65,000kw/h per year; which would cost about $10,400. I also would assume that if they were to be on fossil fuels they would have an average usage of 10,000 gallons of fuel (which would cost close to $30,000). It would also emit more than three times the amount of CO2 into the environment.”

How exactly does this break down?

According to Aho, 10,000 gallons of oil per year creates 222,810 lbs of CO2 per year compared to the geothermal electric of 65,000 kWh per year which emits roughly 97,480 lbs of CO2 per year. Utilizing the geothermal ground source units creates a savings of 125,330 lbs of CO2 that is not being released into the environment, which is equivalent to taking 26 cars off the road completely.

Twenty six cars may not seem like a lot when driving through the crowded streets of Durham on any given weekday when school is in session, however, the more geothermal is utilized, the greater the savings become.

“I know that does not seem like a lot but if you were to think of the impact if every dorm on the whole UNH campus would have,” Aho said. “Currently there are over 30 dorm complexes on UNH campus in Durham, NH. Now you are looking at taking 700 cars per year off the road if they were to be converted to geothermal heating, which is equivalent to 2,000 tons of CO2 that would not be going into the environment. That is when we will start to make a difference.”

As part of its efforts to help the UNH community and other seacoast residents become more sustainable with their home heating and cooling, Ultra Geothermal is also a Business Partner with the Green Alliance. The Green Alliance is a union of environmentally conscious businesses and individual members which educates the public on more sustainable business and buying practices.

“If you are looking to reduce your carbon footprint in the world, your home is a great place to start,” Aho said. “Geothermal energy is clean, renewable and ultimately affordable. In addition, the Federal government offers significant tax incentives for homeowners who invest in geothermal heating and cooling systems.”

Green Alliance members receive a free humidifier when you purchase a geothermal system from Ultra Geothermal. Not a member? Click here to join!